Survival of the Fittest
Days and night of struggle face the paddlers of the Texas Water Safari.
By Russell Roe
Tired of fighting the choppy waves along the seawall in Seadrift, the paddlers of team Double the Dose pull their canoe ashore and start dragging it toward the Texas Water Safari finish line. They’re so desperate to complete the 260-mile Texas Water Safari, they don’t care whether they finish on land or water.
Once across the finish line, one team member flops onto the ground face-first, utterly exhausted from their two-day expedition down the San Marcos and Guadalupe rivers.
He lies there motionless, his eyes closed, his arms helplessly by his side, his standard-issue orange life jacket bunched up around his neck. This is what “the world’s toughest canoe race” will do to you.
Other finishers are sprawled nearby, too, in chairs, on mats or on the grass. Their hands are blistered, their feet are waterlogged, and every part of their bodies aches from days of nonstop paddling. A stone marker nearby states that the race they just completed “is known throughout the world as the ultimate test of endurance, strength and will.”
“I don’t think people can really appreciate it until they’ve done it,” says Bob Spain, head race judge and four-time racer. “There are longer races, but they don’t have all the portages, they don’t have the logjams, they don’t have the bay you have to cross. There are all these obstacles that make this much more than just a flat-water canoe race. It’s survival of the fittest.”
On race morning, teams take their positions in Spring Lake and wait for the start.
At the starting line
The 55th running of the Texas Water Safari starts on a sunny Saturday morning in June at Spring Lake, the headwaters of the San Marcos River. A record number of boats — 141 — crowd the clear, spring-fed waters of the lake, once home to the Aquarena Springs theme park. The paddlers face a deadline of 100 hours to make it to the coastal hamlet of Seadrift.
Solo boats, two-person boats, sleek six-person carbon racing boats, homemade boats, plastic kayaks and summer-camp-style aluminum canoes fill the lake. The race’s only rule: the boat must be human-powered. Teams may receive water, ice and food along the way, but they must take everything else with them.
Competitors are a mix of old-timers and young guns. Race veteran John Bugge is hoping to complete his 39th safari. The Cowboys, a team of six men in cowboy hats, are back, as expected. Curt Slaten’s going solo in a boat that broke up a few years earlier in the first big rapid in the race. Gray Powell and Jeff Davis and the 24 other novice teams — a record — are bursting with nervous anticipation, hoping but not knowing if they have what it takes to finish.
A five-woman boat expected to be a top contender has the bad luck of being stuck on one of the last starting rows. Team member Holly Orr says their priority is to pass as many boats as possible before the first portage over the dam at the foot of the lake.
Rio Vista Dam presents a major challenge early in the race. Some teams run the falls, while others choose to portage around to avoid a swamping.
And they're off...
A starting horn blasts to begin the race, and the lake becomes a flurry of paddles powering through the water, a chaotic jumble of canoes jockeying for position.
Along the shore, glass-bottom boats stand tethered to the dock, the only remaining signs of the lake’s theme park days. The mermaids and swimming pigs that made Aquarena Springs a popular destination have been long gone; now they sound like the kind of things paddlers see in the section of the race known as Hallucination Alley.
In addition to hallucinations, challenges in the race include whitewater rapids, grueling portages, gear malfunction, logjams, snakes, alligators, too many spiders to count, vomiting (repeatedly), twisted ankles, sunburns, rashes, fevers, egg-frying Texas heat, broken boats and, just as likely, broken wills.
“Our strategy is the ER or the finish line,” says Charles Hickman of the Hellgrammites, a team formed by the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, which sponsors the race.
This first part of the race along the San Marcos River is characterized by splashy rapids, twisting channels and multiple dam portages. When the San Marcos reaches the Guadalupe, the river widens, and the race becomes a long slog to Victoria. Below Victoria, the river gets slower and swampier. Finally, there’s the crossing of San Antonio Bay, which often proves to be the biggest wild card in the race.
“This is a race that literally gets worse and worse all the way to the end,” says 10-time finisher Tim Curry, who is competing in a three-man boat.
The water safari began in 1962 when Frank Brown and Bill “Big Willie” George decided to see if they could take their fishing boat from San Marcos to Corpus Christi. The next year, they organized the first Texas Water Safari and invited
other adventurers to follow their river journey.
Allen Spelce, Texas Water Safari president, says that traditionally, the water safari attracted paddlers from towns along the river, but it has grown over the years to draw national and international racers.
Joe Mann traveled from Missouri to compete.
“If you paddle competitively, you know the Texas Water Safari,” he says, describing the safari as the mountain bike version of a canoe race, with all the obstacles and portages. “It’s a magical, mystical legend of a race.”
The Cowboys, with their trademark hats, are longtime competitors in the Texas Water Safari.
For Slaten, it doesn’t take long for trouble to strike. This time, he flips his boat in the first bend in the river.
“I just didn’t get around that first turn,” he says, hoping it wasn’t a bad omen for the rest of the race.
Luckily, nothing breaks this time. When he gets to the big rapid at Rio Vista Dam where he previously crashed, he wisely decides to portage.
At Cottonseed, one of the best-known rapids on the river at Mile 9, crowds gather to watch the paddlers navigate the rocks and tricky turns that have spilled many a boat over the years. If there’s a place to crash, this is it.
Team Touch of Gray, a six-man boat with experienced paddlers who are heavily favored to win the race, makes it through smoothly, the bowmen drawing the front of the long boat around to avoid the old concrete dam.
The Cowboys, a crowd favorite, elicit whoops as they come through.
“Let’s go, Cowboys!” some fans shout. The outside of the boat displays the whimsical race names of the men: Possum Belly, Pole Cat, Blister and others. The cowboy hats worn by the team members give them a trademark style.
“There’s a practical reason for the hats,” says longtime Cowboy John Mark Harras. “They provide lots of shade, plus the hat takes a shot before your head does if you run into a branch or something.”
Harras has 31 safari finishes to his name and says the Cowboys have operated as a six-man team since 2003.
“We’ve been doing this for so long,” he says. “We do it because we love the river. We’ll see parts of the river and remember a story from 25 years ago.”
The five-woman boat, the Miss Fits, passes several teams by the time it reaches Cottonseed Rapid. The women, with matching blue shirts and Orr working the stern, look like a model of paddling efficiency. Except for short stops at the checkpoints, they plan to paddle continuously for the 43 hours it will take to reach the finish. Orr says each team member is allowed to take a one-minute break every hour and a half to eat, drink, pee and take care of any body maintenance issues. Otherwise, it’s paddle, paddle, paddle.
Slaten misjudges the turn at Cottonseed and swamps his boat again. He pulls his boat onto the remains of the dam to assess the damage. He’s lost his headlamp and all his batteries — gear he will desperately miss during the two nights of paddling ahead of him.
Powell, of the novice team, says the crowds along the San Marcos portion add to his excitement. “There are so many people cheering you on. It gets your adrenaline going. We put ‘No Sleep Till Seadrift’ on the side of the boat, and I don’t know how many comments we got on that.”
From there, the paddlers make their way through Staples, Luling and Palmetto State Park, portaging over several dams along the way. The top teams approach Gonzales as the long, dark night starts to settle in.
At Gonzales, the San Marcos River meets the Guadalupe, and the river gets bigger and wider. In the long middle section of the race, racers just hunker down and keep paddling.
“That middle section is just drudgery,” Curry says.
Owen West has entered the Texas Water Safari every year since 1969.
Winners never quit
One of the Miss Fits, Melissa James, says that when she did the race a couple of years earlier, her partner decided to quit at Gonzales. She, however, wasn’t ready to give up. She put a big log in the front of her aluminum canoe for ballast and continued down the river.
“I don’t think anybody expected me to keep going,” she says.
Exhausted, she considered quitting at every checkpoint, but people encouraged her to go on. She made the cutoff times at the checkpoints and thought she might be capable of finishing.
The logjams proved to be a challenge for James. The most brutal portages happen along the river south of Victoria, and every year teams get lost or give up there. Battling fatigue, mosquitoes and hallucinations, James portaged her aluminum canoe by herself up and over the logjams.
She fought her way across the bay, and, once on the other side, she began walking in the knee-deep water toward the finish, pulling her boat behind her.
“I got to the seawall and saw the crowd waiting for me and cheering me on,” she says, adding that it was one of the most emotional moments of the race.
Unfortunately, she arrived a little too late — finishing one hour and one minute past the 100-hour cutoff time.
Her teammate Orr says that despite James’ time disqualification, her perseverance caught the eye of experienced paddlers. She was asked to join the Miss Fits despite having the least experience of the group.
Pete Binion, who has finished the safari more than two dozen times, paddles in the front of a boat filled with various family members.
Through the night
Orr, James and the Miss Fits blast through Gonzales and paddle through the night, passing checkpoints such as Hochheim and Cheapside, outposts that don’t mean anything to ordinary people but loom large in the consciousness of safari veterans.
Teams stream into Cuero throughout the day Sunday as the racers spread out along the course of the river.
Bugge, a race legend, pulls into the Cuero checkpoint complaining about back pain. Bugge has finished the safari 38 times and is determined to finish his 39th. In addition to the snack-size bags of candy and caramel popcorn neatly secured to the inside of his boat, Bugge brings along a variety of lotions, tinctures and painkillers.
The rivalry between Bugge and the Mynar family is one for the ages in safari lore. During the 1980s and ’90s, Bugge’s boat and the Mynar brothers’ boat took turns winning the safari every year. Few people could challenge their dominance.
“It’s been described as the Hatfields and McCoys,” Spelce says. “The rivalry did get heated.”
Slaten pulls into Cuero a few minutes after Bugge. He complains to Mike Drost, his resupply man, about fatigue, the heat, the sun and his rough night.
“My will is continuously being tested!” Slaten says.
Between Cuero and Victoria, trouble shows up in an unexpected place — Nursery Rapids.
Larry and Sonja St. Clair of team GDFR are entering their second night of no sleep, and after making it through the rapid, they start to fall asleep in the boat. They forget that there’s one more section of rough water.
“I heard the roar of the rapid,” Sonja says. “I opened my eyes at the last second and there’s a huge boulder in front of me.”
They hit the rock. Their boat gets pinned against it and fills up with water. In the darkness of the night, it takes them more than an hour to free it.
Fourteen-year-old Payton Binion is welcomed at the finish as he completes his first safari.
Victoria represents a landmark destination on the race, sitting at Mile 200 of the 260-mile race. If paddlers think the race is almost over, they should think again.
“Those are the most brutal 60 miles of the race,” says Karim Aziz, who has finished the safari nine times. “From Victoria on down, you’re entering a whole new world.”
The river is sinewy, slow and swampy. If there are logjams, this is where they’ll be. Many teams are fighting fatigue as they enter their second night in this stretch. While some teams have stopped to nap, others are paddling straight through.
Most teams at this point are dealing with body issues, psychological stress, stomach problems and sleep deprivation. Constant exertion starts to warp the mind. The body starts consuming itself. Hallucinations are so common that this section is known as Hallucination Alley.
“Funny things happen,” Aziz says. “Your lights reflect off the trees, and you see things in the trees. Everybody sees them. Most common are clown faces — faces the size of a two-story house. When the wind blows, the faces move. It’ll freak you out.”
Paddlers might see Mickey Mouse running along the bank. Sometimes, he says, it looks as if you’re going uphill, and sometimes the river appears to come to an end.
Powell claims that every stick he sees in the river turns into some kind of animal.
“I swear I saw a hippo in the river,” he says.
Slaten thinks seriously about quitting the race on this stretch. Since he lost his lights at Cottonseed, he’s tried to keep up with other boats with lights during the nighttime stretches. On this night, he’s paddling with some other boats, and then, all of a sudden, he isn’t. It’s dark, he’s alone, and he doesn’t see any boats for a long time. In the winding watercourse of the lower Guadalupe, he thinks he might have taken a wrong turn.
“I thought: ‘Am I going the wrong way?’” Slaten says later. “I kind of had an emotional breakdown.”
After Hallucination Alley, the crossing of San Antonio Bay remains the last major obstacle of the race.
“The bay crossing is sometimes the worst part of the race,” Aziz says. “It can take you an hour and a half to cross, or it can take you 24 hours.”
The safari conducted a record five bay rescues in 2017.
“A number of novice teams got down to the bay after paddling 254 miles and, unfortunately — whether they were exhausted, disoriented or had just had enough — had to fire off their flares,” Spelce says.
Erin Magee, a veteran solo paddler, makes it most of the way across the bay before the wind and choppy waves start pushing her back. She doesn’t want to risk flipping her boat, so she just lets the wind blow her back across the bay. She spends a lonely night by herself on a point of land and tries the bay crossing again the next morning.
Crossing the finish line
At the finish line on Sunday night, the air is thick with the smell of saltwater. A modest, weather-beaten sign with the words “Texas Water Safari” on one side and “Finish Line” on the other mark the end of the race. Lights from the Seadrift pier cast a glow across the water. Cheers go up as the crowd spots the first boat in the darkness. It is, of course, Touch of Gray, the six-man team that was never seriously challenged in the race, finishing in 36 hours and 50 minutes.
The Cowboys finish later that night, as do the Miss Fits. Slaten arrives around noon on Monday. Powell and Davis finish Monday night — the “No Sleep Till Seadrift” paddlers can finally get some shut-eye.
Spelce says that one year, amid the relief and chaos of finishing, a team of paddlers fired off their red aerial flare in celebration; they were disqualified for using the flare in a non-emergency situation.
Paddlers continue to arrive over the next day and a half, finishing with a mixture of exhilaration and exhaustion.
“We can make ourselves do things we didn’t know we could do,” Aziz says. “It’s amazing. The race pushes you to those limits. And beyond. And beyond that.”
The last boat on the course belongs to 72-year-old Owen West, the man who has entered the Texas Water Safari more times than any other person — every year since 1969. West has finished the race 27 times, but he hasn’t completed it in the past several years. This time, with two grown grandsons in his boat, he makes every checkpoint along the way before the cutoff times. Four days after starting the race, he makes it across the bay, with the finish line almost in sight.
Unfortunately, with just a mile to go, time runs out for West.
“He got all the way down there,” Spelce says. “I really thought this was going to be his year.”
The safari defeats some paddlers. It lifts others up, and it puts all of them through a grueling test of endurance and will. For West, and for all the other paddlers, there’s always next year.